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I've been playing acustic guitar fingerstyle and kind-of-"nail-strumming" all year long. Using my fingers, I can play chords in whatever loudness I desire.

Now that I've started to use picks, everything I do with the plectrum is just so damn loud!

What can I do to change this?

Here are my thoughts, probably mostly wrong:

  • Thinner pick != quieter pick. Meaning: I find it easier to play silently with 0.72mm than with 0.46mm
  • Holding the pick more loosely. Problem: I unintendedly drop it regularly.
  • Strumming bravely with the whole lower arm (not just using the wrist), thus having more puffer zone
  • Muting the strings with the palm. Works for individual strings, but barely for playing chords
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    0.72mm will always make more noise than 0.46mm. Get used to feathering pick. Hand strum is quieter than arm strum. Get used to palm muting strums. Try different material picks - wood, for example. Felt - as supplied for bass guitarists - is pretty quiet. For SILENT playing, hold pick at least 3" away from strings... – Tim Jan 29 '16 at 18:23
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    Dropping the pick is a good sign that you're using the bare minimum amount of pressure to hold it, which is the best amount of pressure to use. Keep practicing using the bare minimum and you'll start dropping the pick less and less and your technique and tone will improve. I disagree with @Tim about a thicker pick always being lower (although I +1ed his comment). The maximum string displacement determines the loudness of the sound. You can play very quietly with any pick. – Todd Wilcox Jan 29 '16 at 19:11
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    @ToddWilcox "3" away from strings" for really silent practice - LOL. For more on how different type picks affect playing volume of an acoustic guitar check this out (music.stackexchange.com/a/29765/16897) – Rockin Cowboy Jan 30 '16 at 5:05
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I can understand what you are experiencing because I used to have the exact same problem. It took some time to overcome the issue and I tried several things before discovering what works really well for me.

While there is no doubt that an ultra thin pick will make it impossible to play as loudly as you can with a thicker pick, the feel of a thin pick is dramatically different and you lose some control because of the bending and delayed springback.

The volume is determined by how forcefully you deflect the string with your pick. To prove this pluck any open string with barely enough lateral deflection to cause the string to vibrate and make a sound. Now deflect the same string a farther distance. You will notice the farther you deflect the string before letting it go to vibrate, the louder the sound.

You can lightly deflect the string with a heavy pick. There is a limit to how much you can deflect a string with an ultra thin pick that will itself deflect - this preventing maximum string deflection. But as I said, I prefer the greater control of a stiffer pick.

The trick is to learn to strum lighter by brushing the pick lightly across the strings rather than digging in. Even with a tight grip on your pick, you are more likely to drop your pick if you dig the pick too deep into the strings because the pushback from the strings will be greater as you place more of the meat of the pick against the strings. The string will act like a slingshot and shoot your pick right out of your hand (used to happen to me often).

It just take practice to develop a lighter strumming hand technique where you are able to control how much your pick digs into the strings. To play more quietly (even with a heavy pick), you want to barely brush the strings with just the tip of your pick.

You also will get less deflection if you angle the pick as it brushes across the string. To prove this - barely hold the fat end of your pick between your fingers very loosely and brush the pick across the strings allowing it to be almost parallel to the fretboard and see how much less volume you get than if you strum with the pick at a 90 degree angle to the strings.

I have tried holding the pick with less of it exposed to sort of force myself to play with just the tip, but I personally found that counter productive.

The technique I use to strum with less volume is to hold the pick in a manner that allows it to flex back and forth like a paint brush on a wall. If you paint a flat surface with a paint brush, you want the brush to bend one way when you brush up and the opposite way when you brush down. Same thing with your pick. You don't want the pick at a 90 degree angle to your strings or it becomes far more difficult to execute that light brush effect that I refer to.

If you grip the pick so that only the tip is exposed, you won't be able to allow the pick to flex back and forth as you brush it across the strings.

Another thing you can do to reduce the deflection and volume on your downstrums is to angle the pick slightly so that it is slicing through the strings as if your pick was a knife blade and you were going to cut the strings. This will alter the tone but reduce the volume.

Finally, in many songs, palm muting is very effective. Palm muting (like developing a lighter strumming technique) is another technique that take a great deal of time and practice to perfect. But once you master it, it becomes second nature and you will start finding more situations where it is effective in creating not only less volume, but more of a rhythmic feel to your strumming.

The bottom line is that you just need to consciously practice a lighter strum using less bite of the pick so that string deflection is reduced. Eventually it will come naturally and you will be able to control the volume as needed.

Good luck and have fun with your music!

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I would say your thoughts are mostly right.

  • Playing with a thinner pick will produce a quieter sound, but there is a trade off where you may not get the tone you want. So this is not always an option and will only get you so far.
  • The best point is about your grip, and you are spot on. Playing with a looser grip will make you quieter. There is a trade off here too: this effect will be more difficult to achieve with thin picks.
  • Felt picks and some other materials will also possibly quiet your sound, but there is the same issue with tone also being effected.
  • Strumming with your whole arm is good technique in my book, although there may be times when it is not called for. I shouldn't think it would directly effect the volume.
  • Choking up on the grip on your pick (to borrow a term from baseball, I mean holding more of the pick with less pick exposed to the strings.) will encourage you to use less of the pick to strike the string. This will in turn quiet your tone, and improve your accuracy (over time with practice). This will also encourage a lighter playing for fear you might scrape your knuckles.
  • Loosening up your movement can let your pick react to the string more instead of cutting through it. This can also help you achieve a quieter tone.
  • Muting the string can indeed quiet your sound. Here there is also a trade off in that it may not be the tone you want. This IS entirely achievable with a feel that is very close to unmuted strumming, with some degree of practice.
  • You could mute the strings with some preparation (weaving something into the strings), especially if this is just for practice rather than performance. I have heard of many preparations, but would recommend a heavy felt. In most useful cases, this drastically effects the tone.
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    As I mentioned in my comment to the answer, I disagree that there is a direct relationship between pick thickness and loudness. I would agree that you can play louder with a thicker pick, but many picking positions and strumming styles would produce about the same volume either way. Different thickness does lead to different harmonic content, and that can affect loudness, but depending on the guitar and the situation, the harmonic content created by a thinner pick could actually sound louder. – Todd Wilcox Jan 29 '16 at 20:06
  • "holding more of the pick with less pick exposed to the strings" (like this guy here: t1p.de/r1y2I) ... "will in turn quiet your tone" ? Sorry, no native speaker here. But you're saying that by coming closer with your finger to the strings, the output will be more quiet? – Blauhirn Jan 29 '16 at 20:14
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    @Blauhirn The main point is to use less of the pick to hit the string. Depending on your current technique, you may be able to force this by holding more of the pick. – amalgamate Jan 29 '16 at 20:51
  • @ToddWilcox I'm not sure that we really disagree in principal, except that you posted the comment to the question not the answer. :-) I am actually one of your +1's. – amalgamate Jan 29 '16 at 21:00
  • Ah. Well I'm a bit confused by this: "Playing with a thinner pick will produce a quieter sound" but all right then. And yes I meant "question" and not "answer". – Todd Wilcox Jan 29 '16 at 21:31
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In addition to very good points made in the previous answers, another way to control dynamics is picking closer to or further away from the bridge or the neck.

With pick style guitar, dynamic control is necessarily more challenging. The instrument itself also plays no small factor, in my experience. While (of course) certain body types will be overall louder or softer, how the guitar is otherwise constructed will affect how easy it is to achieve a wide dynamic range. There are other variable factors as well, such as string gauge and type, type of bridge, et cetera.

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